Confusion over Norfolk unitary plans

East Anglia's painfully complicated council shake-up plumbed new depths today after a court ruling yet again seemed to throw the whole process into chaos and confusion.

East Anglia's painfully complicated council shake-up plumbed new depths today after a court ruling yet again seemed to throw the whole process into chaos and confusion.

A district council led legal challenge to the local government review process, led by three Norfolk authorities, was partially upheld by Court of Appeal judges in London today - sparking fresh claim and counter claim over whether there would be enough time to get any new model through Parliament before a general election.

But the Boundary Committee, which is now proposing plans for a single county super council or a 'doughnut' comprising greater Norwich and a rural rest of Norfolk authority, to deliver all services from schools to emptying bins, insisted the process would not be derailed and they were still on course to meet a July 15 deadline to produce a final recommendation to communities secretary Hazel Blears.

In his ruling Sir Anthony May, president of the Queen's Bench Division, agreed that the original financial workbooks produced by the committee were 'complicated and indigestible' and did not alone constitute a sufficient consultation on the affordability of the plans. He also said the committee needed to quickly produce a 'fairly simple' best estimate of the costs, how they would be paid back, and whether they would impact on council tax bills.

But though he said the committee should pay a third of the councils' legal costs, he ruled out quashing the process because 'we do not see that what they have done so far is broken beyond repair.'

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council said the legal challenges had actually helped clarify the options which should be considered and the process which needed to take place.

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However, Nick Daubney, leader of King's Lynn and West Norfolk council, said the judges' ruling thoroughly discredited the Boundary Committee's 'ham-fisted handling' of the review.

While Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council, said he was 'exasperated with the whole process' and pointed the blame at the government, which he claimed had tried to subvert the process to get the unitary outcome for Norwich it wanted.

Mr Daubney said if the committee was 'hell bent' on continuing the process it must organise a referendum to gauge the public's views.

'We have clearly won,' he said. 'We have always maintained that local people should have the opportunity to have an informed say on matters that affect them, particularly when they will be the ones picking up the tab.

'We believe that the whole process is so seriously flawed that the only sensible thing to do now is abandon it,' he added. 'There simply isn't enough time for the Boundary Committee to do the job properly before the next general election and they should stop wasting public money.'

Mr Cox, said: 'I feel sorry for the Boundary Committee because the sheer incompetence of the communities and local government department beggars belief. I genuinely wonder how the secretary of state is able to look at her reflection in the mirror in the morning without being embarrassed for the chaos and expense that her actions have caused for Norfolk councils and taxpayers.

'This process is in a mess of her making and has cost us all millions,' he added. 'It would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

'However, if the committee continues with its consultation, but makes Norwich's latest financial case easier for people to understand, then many more people will see it for the complete pig's ear it is. Were they to make such views clear during this consultation, and I sincerely hope they will, the secretary of state would have a simple choice in front of her - unitary Norfolk or the status quo.'

Mr Morphew said he feared the reaction of opponents to the unitary process may be aimed more at June's local elections than the Boundary Committee's July 15 deadline.

'It could be political posturing, it could be electioneering,' he said. 'It certainly doesn't seem to bear any relation to the judgment or the wider issues.

'Given that we have been wading through treacle for such a long time we now have a very clear set of options and a very clear process.'

John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, said the committee could face further legal challenges if they did not rethink the process.

'It's game over,' he said. 'It's a humiliation for the Boundary Committee and an embarrassment for the government - it's a total vindication of our stance.'

A spokesman for the Boundary Committee welcomed the ruling.

'We're pleased that both the High Court and the Court of Appeal have upheld our process and allowed it to continue,' he said. 'Our focus now must be on moving as swiftly as possible for the benefit of residents in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. These are important issues for people in the three counties to think about, and we're keen to hear their views on our further draft proposals which we published last week.

'Where we have needed to, we have adapted our process to ensure we have complied with judgments from the courts. That's why we published further draft proposals last week. We'll also be publishing on our website a simple summary of the financial analysis carried out by our independent financial consultants. This will make it easier for everyone to understand the financial implications of different proposals.'